By Jim Coyle
At the end of the riveting HBO series True Detective, cynical former cop Rust Cohle experiences a transformative glimpse of paradise while in a coma. The possibility of an afterlife has always been a human preoccupation, but heaven is popping up everywhere these days -- in TV, books, movies and public debate. Star feature writer Jim Coyle’s new ebook, What’s Next?Our Eternal Quest for Heaven, chronicles our obsession with all things celestial while inquiring into just what happens when people on the brink of death have intimations of the divine. Read it to find out why heaven is once again a hot destination.
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“And God called the firmament Heaven.”
— Genesis 1:8
In the culminating episode of HBO’s gripping series True Detective, obsessed former copper Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, chases through some of the most haunting Louisiana landscape you could encounter, on the trail of one of the more twisted and scarred-in-every-way villains you’d ever hope not to meet.
Through eerie subterranean passageways, beneath otherworldly shafts of light from above, through alternating patches of dark, light, dark, light, through an overgrown hell worthy of Dante, Cohle stalks, eyes scanning, gun levelled. Inevitably, he tracks down and confronts his quarry. In the ensuing tussle, a knife is speared into Cohle’s gut and a life-and-death struggle begins between the forces of the reasonably good, gym-toned and handsome, and the thoroughly wicked, flabby and hideous.
To that point in True Detective, Rust Cohle had been a bereaved father and divorced husband turned utterly cynical — if undeniably intelligent — lost boy and wounded spirit. He survives the battle, barely, while the suspect has the top of his ugly head blown off by Cohle’s partner.
When Cohle awakes days later in hospital, he tells the sadder-but-wiser Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, what happened while he was in a coma. “There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, where everything had been reduced to, not even consciousness, it was a vague awareness in the dark, and I could feel my definition fading, and beneath that darkness there was an other kind. It was deeper, warm, like a substance.
“I could feel, man — I knew, I knew! — my daughter waited for me there. So clear, I could feel it . . . I could feel a piece of my Pop, too . . . It was like I was a part of everything that I ever loved and we were all, the three of us, just fading out and all I had to do was let go, man, and I did . . . and I disappeared.
“But I could still feel her love there, even more than before. . .nuthin’, nuthin’ but that love. And then I woke up.”
It is there, naturally, that Cohle — considered even by the few colleagues who hadn’t totally written him off to be a manipulative sociopath with rather an inflated idea of himself — is wracked with sobs and a profoundly transformative reckoning.
The ending of True Detective is, of course, a Louisiana version of one of humanity’s oldest stories and a re-asking of some of our perennial and most unfathomable questions. Is there life after death? Is there a heaven? Is it a recognizable place, or a wholly altered state of being and perception? Will we meet God there or be reunited with our loved ones? Most important, how do we get our hands on a laminated all-access pass? Not only does fascination with, and faith in, an afterlife pulse through all of human history, across time and place, across almost all religious denominations, but there seems an increase lately of heaven as a theme in popular culture, a dream, even a possibility. In recent years, there’s been a bustling industry in churning out tales of utopia found, paradise regained, immortality achieved, stories of a place in which peace reigns and the whole baffling business of our foolish, fallible, selfish, self-destructive humanity is at last explained and given meaning.
This month, Toronto author Patricia Pearson’s book Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May Be Trying To Tell Us About Where They’re Going is being released by Random House Canada. In it, Pearson reports that palliative care doctors and researchers are observing that “something is having an effect on dying people, and that something is inconsistently related to medication, body chemistry or any given psychological state. What, then, is it?”
Lately, as with all times throughout known history, there have been guesses at what “it” and “there” might be. In her 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s 14-year-old protagonist, Susie Salmon, describes the heaven from which she is communicating as having all the amenities of a really cool high school. “We had been given, in our heavens, our simplest dreams.” There, Susie is assured by another celestial wayfarer that any heart’s desire would come “if you desire it enough and understand why.”
Such desire, as well as a modicum of faith, is usually required for such journeys to heaven. In the Field of Dreams movie version of W.P. Kinsella’s splendid novel Shoeless Joe, actor Kevin Costner is an Iowa farmer who creates a playground for long-dead ball players in a baseball field cut from a cornfield.
“This is the kind of place where anything can happen, isn’t it?”